Saturday, December 12, 2009

Is there no story the Economist can't bollocks up?

The Economist on the USAF's purchas of several thousand PS3s:
But the desire to play games is not the reason why the United States Air Force recently issued a procurement request for 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) video-game consoles. It intends to link them up to build a supercomputer that will run Linux, a free, open-source operating system. It will be used for research, including the development of high-definition imaging systems for radar, and will cost around one-tenth as much as a conventional supercomputer. The air force has already built a smaller computer from a cluster of 336 PS3s.

This is merely the latest example of an unusual trend. There is a long tradition of technology developed for military use filtering through to consumer markets: satellite-navigation systems designed to guide missiles can also help hikers find their way, and head-up displays have moved from jet fighters to family cars. But technology is increasingly moving in the other direction, too, as consumer products are appropriated for military use.
The article quotes a small handful of other examples, but it's not much to pin a story on. The PS3, of course, is being bought for its Cell processors. The USAF could just as easily buy the processors without the game console, but it prefers to buy the console. Why? Because, despite the article's implications to the contrary, the PS3 is still being sold at a loss by Sony to try and make up market share. (Hey, when you're third of three, you do what you can.) If the USAF wanted to buy the Cell processors without the consoles, they'd effectively be paying a tax to Sony for the privilege.

The story the Economist actually got is pretty simple: Sony is selling the PS3 cheap, the USAF is buying it cheap. Instead, they want to turn it into a story that, frankly, isn't really supported by the evidence they marshall. Show me the consumer-oriented assault rifles, kevlar vests, and UAVs fighting in Afghanistan and I'll buy your story. Telling me that the iPhone is a versatile piece of electronics that can be useful even for people in the military isn't exactly Earth-shattering.

1 comment:

Parliament Shill said...

It seems to me that the use of Linux has more to do with the Economist's argument about adoption of consumer tech than the PS3s themselves (and so, in effect, it missed its own story). But you're right: this is just a fairly standard decision to purchase cheap hardware to make a cheap general-purpose supercomputer. Consider how sexy the headline would be if the military had just purchased a few thousand off-the-shelf desktop towers for the same purpose. They've done that before, too.